On Thursday, The New York Times reported that President Trump had pressed James Comey, then FBI director, to spread word that he was not personally under federal investigation. That detail was news to Benjamin Wittes, a friend of Comey's and a named source for other anecdotes in the Times article, but Wittes wanted to elaborate on his casual lunchtime conversations with Comey, he wrote in Lawfare Thursday night, because after reading the article, "I immediately understood certain things Comey had said to me over the previous few months in a different, and frankly more menacing, light."
Wittes' general impression is that Comey was preoccupied with protecting the FBI from inappropriate White House interference and also from attempts to "absorb him into Trump's world — to make him part of the team." But the details Wittes recalls are pretty interesting, like his elaboration of Comey's attempt to avoid Trump's literal embrace at a post-inaugural reception in the White House Blue Room:
As he told me the story, he tried hard to blend into the background and avoid any one-on-one interaction [with Trump]. He was wearing a blue blazer and noticed that the drapes were blue. So he stood in the back, right in front of the drapes, hoping Trump wouldn't notice him camouflaged against the wall. ... The meeting was nearly over, he said, and he really thought he was going to get away without an individual interaction. But when you're 6 foot, 8 inches tall, it's hard to blend in forever, and Trump ultimately singled him out. ... Comey took the long walk across the room determined, he told me, that there was not going to be a hug. ... Look at the video, and you'll see Comey pre-emptively reaching out to shake hands. Trump grabs his hand and attempts an embrace. The embrace, however, is entirely one sided. Comey was disgusted. [Wittes, Lawfare]
The other detail that retroactively struck Wittes was that Comey, to his surprise, was wary about Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosentein, who hadn't been confirmed at that point. "Rod is a survivor," Comey said, according to Wittes, and political survival doesn't come without compromises. Since Comey had been asked to pledge personal loyalty to Trump, Wittes surmises, "he was asking himself, I suspect: What loyalty oath had Rosenstein been asked to swear, and what happened at whatever dinner that request took place?" Read the entire post at Lawfare. Peter Weber
President Trump famously loves bullet points, graphs, and maps, so naturally when German Chancellor Angela Merkel came to warn Trump about his new buddy, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in March, she came armed, Politico reports:
Merkel brought a 1980s map of the former Soviet Union and noted the way its borders stretched for hundreds of miles to the west of Russia's current boundary, according to a source who was briefed on the meeting. The German leader's point was that Putin laments the Soviet Union's demise and, left unchecked, would happily restore its former borders. Merkel left Washington unconvinced that Trump had gotten the message, the source said. (A White House official said a top Merkel aide showed such a map to national security adviser H.R. McMaster, though neither the official nor a spokesman for the German embassy would provide details on Merkel's private meeting with Trump.) [Politico]
During Trump's visit to the European Union and NATO headquarters Thursday, senior officials added that the question of America's policy toward Russia was, "of course, the elephant in the room," given Trump's vague and shifting statements on the matter. Jeva Lange
On Thursday, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia upheld a nationwide block of President Trump's ban on travel from six majority Muslim countries. "The ruling is the most bruising the White House has suffered in its attempts to defend the ban, as it was rendered by 13 judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit — which deemed the case important enough to skip the usual three-judge process that the vast majority of cases go through," The Huffington Post writes.
"Surely the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment yet stands as an untiring sentinel for the protection of one of our most cherished founding principles — that government shall not establish any religious orthodoxy or favor or disfavor one religion over another," Chief Judge Roger Gregory wrote, adding that the president's power to deny entry to aliens is "not absolute" and "cannot go unchecked."
— Zoe Tillman (@ZoeTillman) May 25, 2017
Trump can now appeal to the Supreme Court, a move he has promised he would pursue if necessary. Jeva Lange
Jared Kushner failed to record what is likely a multimillion-dollar art collection that he shares with Ivanka Trump on the couple's government financial disclosures, Artnet reports. Kushner had previously failed to record his stake in the real estate finance startup Cadre, or loans of at least $1 billion from more than 20 lenders to his properties.
One of Kushner's lawyers told Artnet that "Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump display their art for decorative purposes and have made only a single sale. To avoid any doubt, however, they will report their art collection." Artnet adds, "Ethics experts say that it's not uncommon for administration officials to update financial disclosures with more information."
Kushner and Trump broke with many other administration officials in failing to disclose their art collection, though. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross disclosed a collection worth $50 million and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin showed he had a $14.7 million Willem de Kooning painting as an asset.
The couple's collection often appears in Ivanka Trump's Instagram photos and includes what Artnet describes as "both blue-chip and emerging artists, including Alex Israel, Dan Colen, Nate Lowman, Alex Da Corte, and David Ostrowski." Read more about the art collection, and how it is potentially used, here. Jeva Lange
Concerning reports about Trump campaign officials' possible collusion with Russian operatives often lead to big, glaring questions: How and why exactly did the Trump campaign end up hiring people who were clearly red flags? The problem might come down to some really terrible vetting, The Washington Post reported Thursday:
As Trump was starting to win primaries, he was under increasing pressure to show that he had a legitimate, presidential-caliber national security team. The problem he faced was that most mainstream national security experts wanted nothing to do with him.
"Everyone did their best, but there was not as much vetting as there could have been," former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said.
Another longtime campaign official put it this way: "Anyone who came to us with a pulse, a résumé, and seemed legit would be welcomed." [The Washington Post]
Consider, for example, Carter Page, a former national security adviser for President Trump who also has deep ties and apparent loyalty toward Russia. When Page came to Trump Tower to be interviewed, "a top Trump adviser, Sam Clovis, employed what campaign aides now acknowledge was their go-to vetting process — a quick Google search — to check out the newcomer," the Post writes.
Unfortunately, "a thorough vetting of Page might have revealed several red flags," the Post adds. "Page had spent three years working in Moscow, for instance, and he held stock in the Russian company Gazprom, meaning that he could have a personal financial stake in the future of U.S.-imposed sanctions against Russia."
If you ever get your hands on the 2016-2017 yearbook for Virginia's Stafford High School, turn immediately to page 220. All the way at the bottom left, nestled in the rows and rows of standard headshots of teenagers, you'll spot a little pair of innocent black eyes and a wet nose poking up into the camera frame.
they put his service dog in the yearbook i'm CRYING pic.twitter.com/yU47kpKnwA
— diana bloom (@nycstheplacetob) May 18, 2017
This is Alpha Schalk, a service dog for 16-year-old Andrew 'AJ' Schalk (whose photo is one slot to the right). AJ has diabetes, and Alpha has the distinguished job of alerting him when his blood sugar reaches a dangerous level.
"The amazing thing about Alpha is that he knows 20 to 40 minutes before my blood sugar actually does go low or high due to his amazing sense of smell," AJ told BuzzFeed News. "He has saved my life multiple times already." Last year, AJ started bringing Alpha with him to school, and the dog has gathered a bit of a following. When AJ asked the yearbook team if the dog could be featured alongside him in the album, they agreed without hesitation. "The only thing they changed was the camera height," he said. "They just had to lower it a little." Jessica Hullinger
The assumption that Montana is an impenetrable Republican stronghold has held Democrats back from heavy spending on their candidate in the state, the folk-singing populist Rob Quist. "Our polling indicates that Donald Trump is still very popular here. It's not like the [special election] races in Georgia or Kansas, where Trump only won by 1 point or where [Kansas] Gov. [Sam] Brownback has popularity problems," Brock Lowrance, the campaign manager for Republican nominee, Greg Gianforte, told Politico in late April. "There's nothing to indicate that the winds have shifted here in the last six months."
And yet in recent weeks, Quist has narrowed Gianforte's lead to just single digits. Considering Gianforte's apparent assault on a reporter Wednesday night, Democrats might now be kicking themselves for not spending more in a state that is turning out to be far more competitive than anyone expected:
The contest in Montana, to fill the seat vacated by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, has drawn national attention, with both sides together pouring over $10 million into television and radio ads. But this spending in Montana's relatively cheap media markets happened almost in spite of the national Democratic Party, which has been skeptical about Mr. Quist's prospects. Democrats only began helping their nominee here reluctantly, after weeks in which Republicans hammered Mr. Quist on TV with little response. Republicans outspent Democrats more than two-to-one on television and radio, according to media buyers in both parties. [The New York Times]
Additionally, "Montana has a reputation for being a state surprisingly amenable to Democrats in a region that's not known for it," Paul Blest writes at The Week. "While a Democrat hasn't held the lone congressional seat since 1997, a Democrat has held the governor's mansion since 2005 and one of the state's two senators, Jon Tester, is a two-term Democrat."
The Democrats did put out an eleventh-hour ad Thursday featuring audio of Gianforte's alleged assault. But it could still be too little, too late: "The overall race has been an excellent representation of authentic economic populism against today's Republican Party, with its brutal domestic agenda and Government Sachs Cabinet," Ryan Cooper writes at The Week. "Whether or not Quist can eke out a victory is an important test case for whether economic populism can win in red states." Jeva Lange
President Trump lectured his fellow NATO members on Thursday about the United States being among just five member nations currently meeting spending targets. "NATO members must finally contribute their fair share and meet their financial obligations," Trump admonished. "But 23 of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they are supposed to be paying for their defense. This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States."
Trump significantly did not take any pains to express the United States' commitment to Article 5, which requires NATO members to aid other member countries if attacked. The alliance has invoked Article 5 just once, the day after the September 11 attacks.
"If NATO countries made their full and complete contributions then NATO would be even stronger than it is today, especially from the threat of terrorism," Trump went on to the sour and sarcastic expressions of the other members. Watch below. Jeva Lange
*Look at their faces* and the whispering as Trump admonishes leaders over NATO financial obligations. pic.twitter.com/gLCYgKTdi3
— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) May 25, 2017